Apr 10, 2010

In the Shadow of the Bat: Batman, Batwoman, and the De-gendering of the Superhero

An essay I wrote for a class in "Theories of Gender and Sexuality." With thanks to Dr. Nadine Attewell for introducing me to the thought of Judith Butler.

To claim that there is a prejudice towards superhero comic books is perhaps to state the obvious. In the foreword to Beloved, Toni Morrison says “I don't know what comic book that notion came from” (xvi) of her thought that a “grown-up” writer made a living only by writing. The implication is that notions from comic books are simplistic or naive. Superhero comic books are doubly denigrated, not only as simplistic because of the format, but also because, for a long time, they have been written off as “just adolescent power fantasies” (McCloud 11). Surely, though, to ignore the content of a whole genre solely because of historical and cultural perceptions is to do a grave injustice to the writers, artists, and characters, that have inhabited that genre since its inception. Judith Butler says that “to conform to an historical idea of 'woman' [is] to induce the body to become a [specific kind of] cultural sign” (“Performative Acts...” 272). The term “comic book” could easily be substituted in that claim. Conforming to a historical idea of the comic book is to induce an entire body of work to become a particular kind of cultural sign, a simple one, literally and figuratively. As evidence of the genre's depth, the recent reintroduction of the character of Batwoman stands out as an instance in which the superhero comic is espousing something far more than simplistic notions and power fantasies. By comparing this new character with the venerable Batman upon whom she is modeled, a nuanced and progressive reading of gender can be seen. Consideration of this comparison through Butler's theories of performativity, and their historical antecedents in Western philosophy, demonstrate that what is going on in Batwoman's tales in Detective Comics is far from simple. Batwoman's imitation of qualities supposedly intrinsic to Batman do not show an appropriation of male qualities by a female, but serve to de-gender qualities once linked to maleness.

A very brief history of the two characters will serve well to provide a contextual basis for the comparison. Batman's history is relatively well-known. In short, Batman is “secretly Bruce Wayne, a millionaire socialite and philanthropist who, while still a young boy, vowed to dedicate his life to 'warring on all criminals' after seeing his parents murdered by a hoodlum” (Fleisher 30). While over the decades since his original appearance in 1939 there have been many revisions and addenda to this origin, the seed of it has remained the same: a young boy vows to stop crime in memory of his slain parents. Batwoman's origin is slightly more complicated. Kathy Kane first appeared in 1956, a female crime-fighter who periodically assisted Batman. She reflected the social mores of her time with her “'shoulder-bag utility-case'” (140), and, as might well be imagined, did not last long into the more forward-looking Sixties and Seventies. The last appearance of this incarnation of the character came some time in 1965 (146). Jumping ahead to the twenty-first century, an event within the fictional DC comics universe compels Batman to take a year's leave of absence from his role. Into this void step many heroes, including a new version of Batwoman, the cowled Kate Kane. As comic universes undergo periodic revisions, in the current continuity there was never a Kathy Kane, so the current Batwoman is also the first Batwoman. Such things are commonplace in fictional superhero universes. Kate Kane's origin bears some scrutiny. A child of military parents, Kate witnesses the execution of her mother and sister by terrorists while still very young. By way of compensation, a revenge/justice motif similar to Bruce Wayne's tale, Kate enters the United States Military Academy at West Point with the hopes of becoming a marine. Once ejected from that institution due to infringements on the draconian “Don't ask, don't tell” rules, Kate, with her father's help and money, straps on a black bodysuit and cowl and debuts as Batwoman. Even here, in the stories of these characters' beginnings, similarities present themselves, similarities that will help to question the gendering of qualities present in the Batman.

To facilitate a comparison of the two characters , the intrinsic qualities of Batman must be delineated. While theories of performativity maintain that there are no intrinsic qualities of gender, only performances, a character must have a particular set of qualities in order to be identified as that character. This holds especially true for characters in comic books, who are passed from writer to writer and artist to artist over the years. Batman's qualities fall within “[t]raditional definitions of masculinity...attributes such as independence, pride, resiliency, self-control, and physical strength” (Thompson 4). Examples in the literature of such qualities can be found in Morrison and Kubert's Batman #655. Page ten of the comic gives us a day in the life of Bruce Wayne/Batman, including weight training (and a super-buff bod!) to demonstrate his physical strength, independence and pride demonstrated through his dining alone and employment of a manservant, and resiliency in his ability to perform complex repair procedures on his own equipment (Morrison 10). Further, “[i]t is considered manly to take extreme physical risks and voluntarily engage in combative, hostile activities” (Thompson 7), a state of affairs that, really, sums up Batman's entire seventy year history. This brief overview places Batman squarely in the realm of the masculine. His reputation as a lone crime-fighter, using his wits and his strength to defeat evil marks him as a supposed paragon of maleness. But what happens to this paragon when it is held up against the rookie hero Batwoman?

Having been witness to a familial murder and thrown out of the Marines, Kate Kane turns to vigilantism. As with the revision of history, this is an all too common occurrence in super hero comics. What is pertinent about Kate's choice is the mirror of Bruce Wayne's choice that it reveals. Detective Comics #860, part of a 3-issue origin sequence, features the early training of Batwoman, in which she is seen to be displaying “qualities like courage, physical strength, and independence, which are traditionally associated with masculinity” (). She trains to become a martial artist, gymnast, and scientist, along with various other disciplines that will assist her in crime-fighting (Rucka 10-11). She is shown to be learning these abilities on her own, showcasing the independence with which she approaches her calling. In comparison, Batman is said to be “a superb athlete...a world-renowned acrobat and gymnast...'a deadly fighting machine'...[and] 'an ace criminologist'” (Fleisher 52-53). Each of these abilities or areas of knowledge are explicitly replicated in the origin of Batwoman. But to what end? Why create a new superhero as a carbon copy of an old one, one whose popularity has never waned and who has been a consistent best seller for over seventy years? An answer can be found in the application of performativity theory to these remarkably similar heroes.

Performativity draws on historical discourses in theater and philosophy. Any consideration of performance needs to acknowledge the roots from which performance is derived. The theater of ancient Greece is especially useful in configuring contemporary performativity theory with the Batman/Batwoman problem. Because of the size of Greek theaters, “actors wore large stylized masks representing basic character types” (Klaus, Gilbert, and Field, Jr. 12), and amongst these character types were roles of different genders. In Batman and Batwoman, performance of character and gender coalesce, and “the concrete and historically mediated acts” (Butler “Performative Acts...” 273, emphasis in original) through which Bruce Wayne's and Kate Kane's genders are constituted are replaced by the cowl that, if the stories of the two heroes are read at face value, represent basic qualities of the traditional male. Another discourse tied in to performativity is that of the purpose of not only theater, but of performance in general. Hegel's The Philosophy of Fine Art addresses this question, as have many others before and since. One of the contentions that Hegel argues against is Plato's view that all art is “an imitat[ion]...thrice removed...from the truth” (Plato 15), and therefore that is has “no true or healthy aim” (18). If Plato's view of imitation was adhered to, the performance of traditional male roles by Batwoman would be, as Hegel puts it, a “superfluous task” (Hegel 503, emphasis in original). As was asked above, why create a copy of something when the original is still viable? His answer to Plato's theory of art is that art “contains an end bound up with it” (501,emphasis in original), that rather than simply being a copy of something already in existence, art serves a purpose all its own. That purpose is one which Hegel goes on at length discussing, but for our purposes, the idea that art, and by association with drama, performance, is not simply imitation, but contains its own end, is the salient one. Drawing these two considerations together, the picture of Batwoman goes from mirror of “traditional male” Batman, to wearer of a costume that represents a basic character type, but has a purpose of its own bound up in it.

What are we to make of Kate Kane's assumption of the mantle of the Bat? Is the costume of the superhero, specifically the Batman, a gendered one? Does wearing the costume necessarily mean wearing the gender it ostensibly represents? While Batwoman's costume, through the lens of Hegel and Greek tragedy, can now be seen as an assumption of a character with a purpose bound up in that assumption, the purpose itself is somewhat unclear. At this point, the equation of Batman with “traditional male” qualities needs to be questioned. Indeed, the very notion of “traditional male” qualities itself needs to be questioned. Butler states that “if gender is instituted through acts which are internally discontinuous, then the appearance of substance is precisely that, a constructed identity, a performative accomplishment” (“Performative Acts...” 270). This statement bears close scrutiny. To begin, gender is “acts which are internally discontinuous.” Setting aside for the moment the superhero, this means that there is no inherent biological or psychological origin for acts, or behaviours, that are considered stereotypically of the male or female gender. A “body becomes its gender through a series of acts” (“Performative Acts...” 273), not through any inherent quality of its own. This is to draw the distinction between sex and gender, of course. Sex, or primary sexual characteristics, is something all living creatures are born with. One facet of gender, then, seems to be the ways in which we relate socially to other beings with both similar and different primary sexual characteristics. The particular performances of “male” that I choose to enact inform the ways in which I relate to others of both the same sex and other sexes. This performance is further complicated by the ways in which others choose to relate to same and different sexes: their genders. However, the fact remains that according to theories of performativity, gender is not inherent. It is “a constructed identity,” a series of “historical [and cultural] situation[s] rather than a natural fact” (“Performative Acts...” 271). If this can be true for gender, that it is not inherent, then it can also be true for the superhero. The act of donning a costume, to return to the example of Batman and Batwoman, does not carry with it any inherent fact of gender. The gender roles that are ascribed to Batman, the “traditional male” qualities that he is seen to embody, are simply acts that over time have come to be identified with maleness. Where Butler talks of drag, we might substitute costumed superheroism, in that it “is not the putting on of a [costume] that belongs properly to some other group, i.e....that 'masculine' belongs to 'male'” (“Imitation...” 371). Indeed, Kate Kane's assumption of these qualities through the desire to become a superhero, whether intentional on the author's part or not, seems to be denying that the qualities are male at all, but are simply attributes that any individual can achieve, regardless of sexual characteristics or gender identification. Butler argues a seemingly Platonic viewpoint when she affirms that, with reference to gay culture imitating heterosexuality, “it is always and only an imitation of an imitation, a copy of a copy, for which there is no original” (“Imitation...” 379). Her point, though, is not to say that the imitation has no purpose, as Plato does, but to recognize that there is no reason to ascribe primacy to any act, regardless of temporality. That someone with male sexual characteristics performed an act first by no means makes it a male act. The claiming of such acts as male or female serves particular power discourses within society. Kate Kane's choice to become Batwoman denies those discourses, ungendering the male qualities of the superhero and turning them into human qualities.

The creation (or re-creation) in recent years of Batwoman, and her starring role in the seminal Detective Comics, shows a de-gendering of qualities that were once thought traditionally male. When the character is viewed through the lens of the Hegelian philosophy of fine art, that her “imitation” has purpose, her performance of particular attributes supports Judith Butler's assertion that no act is inherently male or female. By portraying characteristics that have, for seventy years, been associated with the hero Batman, the writers of the Batwoman stories have wrestled such qualities as “independence, pride, resiliency, self-control, and physical strength” from the domain of the male. What they have not done, however, is tried to demonstrate that they are female qualities, but instead that they are qualities with no intrinsic gender relation. This constitutes a reclamation from the historical and cultural discourses of power of the ascribing of particular qualities to particular genders, and an acknowledgment of the meaninglessness of gender in defining the qualities an individual can achieve.

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.” Women, Knowledge, and Reality. Ed. A. Garry and M. Pearsall. Routledge, 1996. 371-87. Print.

---. "Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory." Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre. Ed. Sue-Ellen Case. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988. 270-82. Print.

Fleisher, Michael L. The Original Encyclopedia of Comic Book Heroes volume 1: Featuring Batman. New York: DC Comics, 2007. Print.

Klaus, Carl H., Miriam Gilbert, and Bradford S. Field, Jr. “Classical Greek Theater.” Stages of Drama: Classical to Contemporary Masterpieces of the Theater. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991. 9-12. Print.

Hegel, G.W.F. “The Philosophy of Fine Art.” Aesthetics: A Reader. Ed. D. Goldblatt and L. Brown. Prentice Hall, 1997. 501-6. Print.

McCloud, Scott. Reinventing Comics. New York: Paradox Press-DC Comics, 2000. Print.

Morrison, Grant, writer. “Batman & Son Part 1: Building a Better Batmobile.” Batman #655. Art by Andy Kubert. Colours by Dave Stewart. Letters by Nick J. Napolitano. New York: DC Comics, 2006. Print.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Random House, 2004. Print.

Plato. “The Republic.” Contextualizing Aesthetics. Ed. H.G. Blocker and J.M. Jeffers. Cengage Learning Nelson Education, 1999. 11-21. Print.

Rucka, Greg, writer. “Go 3.” Detective Comics #860. Art by J.H. Williams III. Colours by Dave Stewart. Letters by Todd Klein. New York: DC Comics, 2010. Print.

Thompson, Cooper. “We Should Reject Traditional Masculinity.” To Be A Man: In Search of the Deep Masculine. Ed. Keith Thompson. Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1991. 4-10. Print.

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